Political divisions of the United States
Learn more about Political divisions of the United States
The political units and divisions of the United States include:
- The Fifty States, which units are typically divided into counties and townships, and incorporated cities, villages, towns, and other types of municipalities, and other autonomous or subordinate public authorities and institutions; and
- The District of Columbia, which constitutes Washington, the Capital of the United States. Although the District of Columbia is not a state and does not send Senators or voting Representatives to Congress, residents can vote in presidential elections and are represented in the Electoral College.
- Indian Reservations are given quasi-independent status. While residents vote as residents of the state in which they reside and do pay federal taxes, the reservations are exempt from many state and local laws. The ambiguous nature of their status has both created opportunities (i.e. gambling in states that normally disallow it) and challenges such as the unwillingness of some companies to open up shop in a territory where they are not certain what laws will apply to them.
- The federal union, which constitutes the United States as a collective of the several states, and as it exercises exclusive jurisdiction over the military installations, and American embassies and consulates located in foreign countries; and until the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973 had jurisdiction over the local affairs of the District of Columbia.
- Such quasi-political divisions as conservation districts and school districts, which are usually just special, geographically designated subordinate public authorities.
Altogether, there are an estimated 85,000 extant political entities in the United States. Political units and divisions of the United States are a subset of the total United States territory.
 Political units and system of operation
The primary political unit of the United States after the federal union is the state. Technically and legally, states are not "divisions" created from the United States, but units that compose the US, because the United States and the several states that constitute it operate with a system of parallel sovereignty. According to numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Court, the several states and the United States (that is, the federal state which is coextensive with the 50 several states and the District of Columbia) are sovereign jurisdictions. The sovereignty of the United States is strictly limited to the terms of the United States Constitution, whereas the sovereignty of each individual state is unlimited, except in two respects: 1. The sovereignty and powers that each state has transferred to the United States via the United States Constitution, and 2. The provisions of its own constitution, which usually (but not always) sets certain parameters for the exercise of the state's sovereignty.
Most states decentralize the administration of their sovereign powers, typically in three tiers but always employing at least two tiers and sometimes more than three tiers. The first tier of decentralization is always the statewide tier, constituted of agencies that operate under direct control of the principal organs of state government - such as bureaus of vital statistics, and departments of motor vehicles or public health. The second tier is always the county (called "borough" or "census area" in Alaska; "parish" in Louisiana), which is an administrative division of the state. It may also be more than that (e.g., a metropolitan municipality), but it is always an administrative division of the state. The third tier commonly found in many states, especially the Midwest, is the township, which is an administrative division of a county.
Basically, counties exist to provide general local support of state government activities, such as collection of property tax revenues (counties almost never have their own power to tax), but without providing most of the services one associates with municipalities, because counties are usually too big for that purpose. That is where the township comes in, to provide further localized services to the public in areas that are not part of a municipality.
In some states, such as Michigan, state universities are constitutionally autonomous jurisdictions, possessed of a special status somewhat equivalent to that of metropolitan municipality. That is, as bodies corporate, they operate as though they were municipalities but their autonomy from most legislative and executive control makes them equally comparable to administrative divisions of the state, equal or superior to counties.
In some states, cities operate independently of townships. Some cities (and all cities in Virginia) operate outside of the jurisdiction of any county. Cities, which are sometimes called towns, differ from counties and townships in that they are not administrative divisions of the state. Instead, they are semi-autonomous municipal corporations that are recognized by the state. In essence, the city as municipal corporation is the modern form of the ancient city-state, a sovereign entity that exists today only in the forms of Monaco, San Marino, Singapore, and Vatican City; and to a degree, Hong Kong and Macao, but these two are Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China.
Divisions of the federal state include, first, the originally diamond-shaped District of Columbia (hence the song, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean"), which contains the United States Capitol Building - the seat of the Government of the United States (in contrast to most other countries, where the seat of government is the principal official residence of the president, monarch, or other head of state - as with Buckingham Palace in United Kingdom, Rideau Hall in Canada, and Áras na hUachtarán in Ireland). The United States Congress exercises exclusive jurisdiction over this and all other lands owned by the federal government.
Notwithstanding four states officially call themselves "commonwealth" (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky), which go back to their original founding charters and constitutions. In the federal context, the term 'commonwealth' means an intermediate status between 'territory' and 'state' - both in the sense of "independent state" and "U.S. state," but such does not apply to the four states that are commonwealths by their own state constitutions. At the Federal level, there is really no distinction, and the term is more of an archaism than one of any true import. However, Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas Islands are territories which are commonwealths associated with the United States. They might someday advance to statehood, or they might become independent - as did the Philippines in 1946, after it was a commonwealth of the United States for many years. A territory - whether "organized" and "unorganized" has significantly fewer rights in the grand scheme of things than a commonwealth (let alone a state), but it ranks at least a notch above "possessions" such as Wake Island, which has no permanent population and, does not require even a simple territorial government.
 Federal oversight of United States territory
 Congress of the United States
Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution defines the extent of the authority that the U.S. Congress exercises over the territory of the United States:
- New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
- The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
The power of Congress over territorial divisions that are not part one of the states is exclusive and universal. Once the territory becomes a state of the Union, the state must consent to any changes pertaining to the jurisdiction of that state. This has been violated only once, when a rump legislature formed the State of West Virginia, seceding from Virginia, which itself had seceded from the United States in the months preceding the American Civil War.
 United States Department of the Interior
On March 3, 1849, the last day of the 30th Congress, a bill was passed to create the U.S. Department of the Interior to take charge of the internal affairs of United States territory. The Interior Department has a wide range of responsibilities (which include the regulation of territorial governments, the basic responsibilities for public lands, and other various duties).
In contrast to similarly named Departments in other countries, the United States Department of the Interior is not responsible for local government or for civil administration except in the cases of Indian reservations, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and island dependencies, through the Office of Insular Affairs (OIA).
 States of the United States
At the Declaration of Independence, the United States consisted of 13 states, former colonies of the United Kingdom. In the following years, this number has grown steadily due to expansion to the west, conquest and purchase of lands by the American government, and division of existing states to the current number of 50 U.S. states:
The relationship between the state and national governments is rather complex, because of the country's federal system. Under United States law, states are considered sovereign entities, meaning that the power of the states is considered to come directly from the people within the states rather than from the federal government. The federal government of the United States was created when sovereign states delegated some of their sovereignty to one central government. The sovereignty they delegated, however, was not complete. The logical extension of this delegation is that the federal government enjoys limited sovereignty, and the states retain whatever sovereignty they never delegated to the federal government. Federal law overrides state law in the areas in which the federal government is empowered to act, but the powers of the federal government are subject to the limited sovereignty delegated by the Constitution of the United States. (The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares that the powers not delegated to the federal government are retained by the states, but this this arguably is mere truism.)
The United States–Canadian border is the longest undefended political boundary in the world. The 50 states are divided into distinct sections:
- the "continental United States," also known as "the Lower 48" and more accurately termed the conterminous, coterminous, or contiguous United States
- Alaska, an exclave, which is physically connected only to Canada
- the archipelago of Hawaii, in the central Pacific Ocean.
The United States also holds several other territories, districts, and possessions, notably the federal district of the District of Columbia, which contains the nation's capital city of Washington, and several overseas insular areas, the most significant of which are American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands. Islands gained by the United States in the war against Spain at the turn of the 20th century were no longer to be considered foreign territory; on the other hand, the United States Supreme Court declared that they were not automatically covered by the Constitution and that it was up to Congress to decide what portions of the Constitution, if any, applied to them. The only remaining exception is Palmyra Atoll, the United States's only incorporated territory; it is unorganized and uninhabited.
The United States Navy has held a base at a portion of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 1898. The United States government possesses a lease to this land, which only mutual agreement or United States abandonment of the area can terminate. The present Cuban government of Fidel Castro disputes this arrangement, claiming Cuba was not truly sovereign at the time of the signing. The United States argues this point is moot because Cuba apparently ratified the lease post-revolution, and with full sovereignty, when it cashed one rent check in accordance with the disputed treaty.
 Divisions of U.S. states
 Counties in the United States
The states are divided into smaller administrative regions, called counties in most states — exceptions being Alaska (boroughs or census areas) and Louisiana (parishes). Counties can include a number of cities, towns, villages, or hamlets, or sometimes just a part of a city. Counties have varying degrees of political and legal significance, but they are always administrative divisions of the state. For further detail, visit counties and county statistics of the United States. Counties in many states are further subdivided into townships - which, by definition, are administrative divisions of a county. In some states, such as Michigan, a township can file a charter with the state government, making itself into a "charter township," which is a type of mixed municipal and township status (giving the township some of the rights of a city without all of the responsibilities), much in the way a metropolitan municipality is a mixed municipality and county.
 Cities in the United States
There are approximately 30,000 incorporated cities in the United States, with varying degrees of self-rule.
 Townships in the United States
Township is an intermediate civic designation between city and county; cities sometimes cross county boundaries, townships never do. Some townships have governments and political power, others are simply geographic designations. Townships in the United States are generally the product of the Public Land Survey System. For more information, see survey township and civil township. Townships are subdivided into sections, which never have separate governments.
The terms townships and towns are closely related (in many historical documents the terms are used interchangeably). However, the powers granted to towns or townships varies considerably from state to state. In New England, towns are a principal form of local government, providing many of the functions of counties in other states. In California, by contrast, the pertinent statutes of the Government Code clarify that "town" is simply another word for "city," especially a general law city as distinct from a charter city.
 Jurisdictions not administered by the states
 Federal district of the United States
A separate federal district, the District of Columbia, which is under the direct authority of Congress, was formed from land ceded to the Federal Government by the adjoining states of Maryland and Virginia; although all of the Virginia cession was subsequently returned to state jurisdiction. The district does not form part of any state and the United States Congress has the constitutional power of, "Exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever," over the district; however, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act provides for a mayor-council system of government.
 Indian reservations
American Indian reservations are a separate and special classification of political division of the U.S. Under U.S. law, Indian tribes are sovereign nations, meaning that their legal authority to exist derives independently of the state and federal governments. However, under this definition of tribal sovereignty, they cannot act independently of the federal government, but they are immune from regulations under state law. Until the late-19th century, agreements between the U.S. government and Native American groups were generally called treaties, however these are now considered domestic legislation despite their name, and, since the passage of the Dawes Act in 1883, no new treaties with Indian tribes have been concluded.
 Territories of the United States
Lands and regions not part of any state, and not assigned to the native peoples of the Americas, have often been legally designated as territories by the U.S. government. Most of these possessions, as they are alternately called, were the results of seizure and cession. All former territories in the contiguous U.S. are now states; several overseas unincorporated territories, briefly held, are now independent countries—Cuba and the Philippines being two examples.
The United States currently has only one incorporated territory, Palmyra Atoll. This has been the case since 1959, up to which point large parts of the United States were under the direct control of the federal government, with nominal political autonomy at the territorial level.
Unlike states, the authority to rule dependent areas comes not from the people of those areas but from the Federal government; however, in most cases Congress has granted a large amount of self-rule.
 Insular areas of the United States
 Incorporated (integral part of United States)
- Palmyra Atoll (uninhabited, owned by The Nature Conservancy but administered by the Office of Insular Affairs; part of the United States Minor Outlying Islands)
 Unincorporated (United States' possessions)
- American Samoa (officially unorganized, although self-governing under authority of the U.S. Department of the Interior)
- Guam (organized under Organic Act of 1950)
- Northern Mariana Islands (commonwealth, organized under 1977 Covenant)
- Puerto Rico (commonwealth, organized under terms of the 1950 Puerto Rico-Federal Relations Act)
- U.S. Virgin Islands (organized under Revised Organic Act of 1954)
Along with Palmyra Atoll, these form the United States Minor Outlying Islands:
- Baker Island
- Howland Island
- Jarvis Island
- Johnston Atoll
- Kingman Reef
- Midway Islands (administered as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge)
- Navassa Island
- Wake Island
From July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994, the U.S. administered the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, but more recently entered into a new political relationship with all four political units (one of which is the Northern Mariana Islands listed above, the others being the three freely-associated states noted below).
- Navassa Island (with Haiti)
- Machias Seal Island (with Canada)
- Wake Island (with Marshall Islands)
- Serranilla Bank (with Colombia)
- Bajo Nuevo Bank (with Jamaica)
 Freely-associated states
The freely-associated states are the three sovereign states with which the United States has entered into a Compact of Free Association. They have not been within U.S. jurisdiction since they became sovereign; however, many considered them to be dependencies of the United States until each was admitted to the United Nations in the 1990's.
 Electoral districts
Each political institution defines for itself the districts from which its members are elected. Congressional districts are an example of this. State legislatures are also divided up from the territory of each state.
 Other districts
In addition to general-purpose government entities legislating at the state, county, and city level, special-purpose entities such as conservation districts also exist.
 See also
- United States territory
- Geography of the United States
- Territorial evolution of the United States
- Historic regions of the United States
- History of United States continental expansion
- History of United States overseas expansion
- List of regions of the United States
- Organized territory
- Unceded territory
- Unorganized territory
 External links
- Animated Map: Boundaries of the United States and the Several States
- U.S. Census Bureau Geographic Areas Reference Manual
- CityMayors article
|Image:Flag of the United States.svg||Political divisions of the United States|
|Capital||District of Columbia|
|States||Alabama | Alaska | Arizona | Arkansas | California | Colorado | Connecticut | Delaware | Florida | Georgia | Hawaii | Idaho | Illinois | Indiana | Iowa | Kansas | Kentucky | Louisiana | Maine | Maryland | Massachusetts | Michigan | Minnesota | Mississippi | Missouri | Montana | Nebraska | Nevada | New Hampshire | New Jersey | New Mexico | New York | North Carolina | North Dakota | Ohio | Oklahoma | Oregon | Pennsylvania | Rhode Island | South Carolina | South Dakota | Tennessee | Texas | Utah | Vermont | Virginia | Washington | West Virginia | Wisconsin | Wyoming|
|Insular areas||American Samoa | Guam | Northern Mariana Islands | Puerto Rico | Virgin Islands|
|Minor outlying islands||Baker Island | Howland Island | Jarvis Island | Johnston Atoll | Kingman Reef | Midway Atoll | Navassa Island | Palmyra Atoll | Wake Island|
ca:Organització territorial dels Estats Units de:Politische Einheiten der Vereinigten Staaten es:Organización territorial de los Estados Unidos fi:Yhdysvaltain poliittiset alueet pt:Subdivisões dos Estados Unidos da América scn:Divisioni pulìtichi dî Stati Uniti simple:Political divisions of the United States